Category: Opera

Review: The Selfish Giant

A giant production with so much to love

By Narelle Wood 

Victorian Opera Youth Opera brand new work, The Selfish Giant – based on the Oscar Wilde short story of the same name – is sure to become a favourite for opera aficionados and newbies alike.

Under the Direction of Cameron Menzies, we follow the story of the giant (Stephen Marsh) as he comes home from an extended trip to find his beloved garden overrun with happily playing children. Scarred from his childhood, and wanting the garden all to himself, the giant scares the children away. The next day Spring (Saffrey Brown) arrives with her fairies (Stephanie Ciantar and Chloe Maree Harris) to wake up the garden, but something is wrong. Soon after Snow (Michael Dimovski), Wind (Noah Ryland) and Frost (Darcy Carroll) arrive with Winter (Olivia Federow-Yemm), looking for a place to call home. Spotting the deserted garden they make themselves at home. After some time has passed, children again find their way back into the garden, prompting the selfish giant to think about sharing. Winter is banished and Spring returns.

Composer Simon Bruckard’s captures the story with dynamic shifts in mood, from the playfulness of the children and the grumpiness of the giant to the sprightly spring and the glacial winter. Some of my favourite moments come from the children playing, where librettist Emma Muir-Smith has managed to capture both the fun-loving and at-times menacing behaviour of children, in a very Oscar Wilde-esque way. There are moments of endearing wit, especially from the Dimovski, Ryland and Carroll whose characters lend themselves to Wilde’s frivolity. I wondered whether there were more moments to capture Wilde’s sardonic wit, especially for the giant.

While James Browne’s set is minimalist, the dimensions and angles of the stage and carefully placed set pieces creates the impression of an imposing house, suitable to contain an imposing giant. Browne’s costumes, however, were one of my favourite things in a production where there was just so much to love. Menzies’ use of props to represent the garden is incredible, as are all the performances. Marsh is endearing as the giant, even when he’s been selfish, and the Youth Chorus and Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra are faultless in their supporting roles.

Tickets to this world premiere were hard to come by, and it’s easy to see why. This is a charming opera showcasing the immense talent that all of these performers have to offer. The run was short, but hopefully The Selfish Giant will get the revival it deserves.

For more Victorian Opera performances and tickets go to victorianopera.com.au

Photography courtesy of Charlie Kinross

Review: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

Opera Australia mounts Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg trading comedy for grandeur 

By Leeor Adar 

One can rarely prepare for the grandiosity of a Richard Wagner opera; it takes the gargantuan ego of Wagner and elongates into a brilliance so exhausting that one is both awed and thankful by the time the curtains close. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is no exception here, and instead of gods and monsters, Wagner takes a club to the club, so to speak. Old establishment meets the radical ego of a young man, and ultimately the radicalised eventually succumbs to the powers of the masters.

The story unfolds in Nuremberg, an intensely patriotic front of the Germans, and follows the competition amongst its musical poets for the hand in marriage of a young and well-connected maiden. The tale is simple enough, however Die Meistersinger reflects the innards of Wagner at differing stages of his own life. At first, Wagner is Walther Von Stolzing, rebelling against the gates of the establishment to be seen and heard. Like Walther, Wagner despised the conventions of opera in his youth, but by the time Wagner was composing the opera he was Hans Sachs, the wiser and far more desirable hero for the tale whose heroism is deeply entrenched in his love of art and Germany.

It is easy to see in the final act of Die Meistersinger how the Third Reich was so enamoured with the composer and his work. Where Gioachino Rossini’s lead in Guillaume Tell (recently performed by Victorian Opera) is bolstered by community and the fight against larger forces, our ultimate hero, Sachs, in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger strongly desires to maintain the masters, even when he questions their methods.

To bring us this extravagant opera Australian Opera partners with the Royal Opera House Convent Garden and the National Centre for Performing Arts, Beijing. It is mammoth in length and mammoth in the scale of its staging. Much like the Ring Cycle, Die Meistersinger contains larger than life characters and spaces. Set designer, Mia Stensgaard, created the crowning jewel of Die Meistersinger with a set design so stunningly elaborate and intricate it looks as though the characters inhabit the insides of an organ – a very fitting world for the Mastersingers.

I was thrilled to learn that Kasper Holten would be Directing Die Meistersinger, as his ground-breaking approach to his previous work had the potential to be fantastically imagined in Wagner’s world. I had the pleasure of seeing Holten’s direction of Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger in 2017, and can see how his style weaves through the old-world costumes of designer, Anja Vang Kragh. It is also pleasing to see composer Pietari Inkinen return after an astonishingly successful Ring Cycle in 2016 to conduct this production.

As for the performers, Natalie Aroyan makes for a strong Eva despite the constraints the role provides to a voice as rich as hers. Stefan Vinke as Walther is not so exciting in his Meatloaf moonlighting as a ’70s dad getup. Unfortunately, Vinke’s vocals struggled to bring the requisite intensity to the role, however by the second act, he was in a stronger stride. Die Meistersinger’s real hero, Sachs, is performed by baritone Michael Kupfer-Radecky with an intensity and composure that surely sent many hearts fluttering. Kupfer-Radecky had the opportunity to previously take on the role of Sachs in La Scala in 2017, so it is Australia’s great fortune to have him reprise the role for Opera Australia.

There is very little comedy to be had in Wagner’s famed comedy. Most of the “humour” is reserved for the humiliation of what is ultimately an abysmally treated Sixtus Beckmesser, a Jewish caricature that reflects only the surface of Wagner’s equally grandiose anti-Semitism. However, Warwick Fyfe certainly electrifies the role, making Beckmesser a fabulous (and yes, funny) villain despite what our historical gaze will affix to the character.

In the scheme of Wagner’s work, Die Meistersinger is not particularly as palatable as the Ring Cycle, but if this is your first foray into Wagner’s world, Opera Australia’s production makes for an excellent entrance.

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is being performed at Arts Centre Melbourne 13 -22 November. Tickets can be purchased online.

Photograph: Jeff Busby

Review: The Rug

A satirical dissection of the angry white man

By Samuel Barson

An angry white man has a tantrum about how difficult it is being a white man. No, this is not parliamentary question time, this is Ben Grant’s electropera The Rug.

With a running time of just 45 minutes, The Rug is a feverish and hysterical satire on the so-called ‘plight’ of the modern white man.

Ben Grant, a white male himself, does a respectful job with the commentary he makes on his own demographic. He is self-aware and has clearly done much research on Australia’s current situation, as well as its history of racial prejudice. It took some time to get used to his performance style, but once comfortable with what he was doing, it was a solid and clever solo performance.

Herbz’s production design and Paul Lim’s lighting design were exuberant, unpredictable and strangely glamorous. The dramatic design complimented the over-dramatic white man who was whining and prancing around the stage.

Rah Creation’s set design was kindly simple, allowing the attention to be on Grant’s performance, while still serving his choreography when necessary.

The Rug is certainly not your typical piece of theatre, but rather a greatly refreshing one. It was exciting to see regularly visited themes like privilege tackled in such an irregular and entertaining way. A must see for lovers of the absurd.

The Rug is being performed at La Mama Courthouse 31 October – 11 November. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office on 03 9347 6142.

Photograph: Pier Carthew

 

Review: Pelléas and Mélisande

Elemental and mysterious – Victorian Opera faithfully restages Debussy classic

By Lois Maskiell

The cruelly romantic Pelléas and Mélisande as produced by the Victorian Opera is an enchanting and loyal rendition of Claude Debussy’s only completed opera. Elegantly and simply staged, this tragic tale reaches the subconscious with its haunting orchestral score and celebrated motifs. Debussy’s ingenious ability to transform content across artistic mediums is revealed in the fact this opera is based on Belgian playwright, Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist play of 1893. Belonging to the turn of the century, it is often associated with impressionist and symbolist movements in art and literature respectively, particularly due to its allusions to the natural world.

Caught in a web of duty, longing and revenge, Golaud (Samuel Dundas), his wife Mélisande (Siobhan Stagg) and half-brother and Pelléas (Angus Wood) form an ill-fated love triangle. After Golaud discovers the distraught Mélisande lost in the forest, he claims her as his bride and brings her to the castle where Pelléas and his parents Arkel and Genevieve (David Parkin and Liane Keegan) reside. As Mélisande passes increasing amounts of time with Pelléas, their secret relationship transitions from one of playfulness to passion before concluding with a strike of Golaud’s sword.

Palais Theatre’s ornate proscenium arch frames a fairly stark set which, excluding three spinning wooden structures, features only an enormous white sheet cast across the back of the stage. As smoke drifts from the wings, Joseph Mercurio’s exquisite lighting illuminates the backdrop establishing an ethereal atmosphere which grows increasingly lunar as soon as the orchestra and performers begin. Richard Mills conducts with great momentum and attention to silence; delicate melodic fragments sweep throughout the theatre evoking both the forest and confines of a gloomy castle. A highlight was the timpani which added foreboding depth to the score’s loftier sounds.

Capturing the famous image of Mélisande letting her hair down and Pelléas succumbing to passion, the beguiling modesty presented is indeed suggestive. Soprano, Siobhan Stagg is sublimely cast as Mélisande. Stagg brings complexity to such a belittled character who is constantly reminded of her timidity and childlike qualities by the male characters. Bass, David Parkin as Arkel reaches allegorical stature with his unearthly low notes. The rich baritone of Dundas fuels a charged Golaud, which contrasts to tenor Wood who stars in the more reserved role of Pelléas.

Director, Elizabeth Hill ensures each scene is clear and allows relationships, affiliations and individual characters to be expressed in beautiful unison with the music. While I wanted the chemistry between Mélisande and Pelléas to be more obvious, the strength and talent of each individual performer compensated for any great shortcomings.

Experiencing Pelléas and Mélisande, I felt as if I was suspended in twilight for the show’s entire duration. It left me feeling both mystified and perplexed by its disarming ability to enchant despite having such cruelty at its core. Victorian Opera has achieved an idyllic marriage of text, score and mise-en-scène with this production that deserves a much longer season.

Pelléas and Mélisande is being performed 11 and 13 October at Palais Theatre, St Kilda. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 136 100. 

Photograph: Jeff Busby

 

Review: William Tell

Victorian Opera does justice to Rossini’s monumental opera

By Leeor Adar

For having one of the most recognised overtures globally, it is a surprise to learn that Rossini’s William Tell left Australian shores in 1876 and only returns now in 2018 (Halley’s comet has a better track record).

At 5 hours in length, it is certainly palatable to learn that Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director, Richard Mills, has cut the production down to 3 hours with “unfussy, lucid staging”. The content of William Tell is explosive and powerful. It has the grandiosity in concept of Wagner’s work, but is concerned less with magic and more with the good fight of everyday citizens.

Guillaume Tell is a Swiss man fighting for the freedom of his people from the oppression of Austrian forces, and with scores of cast and chorus, the production needs one hell of a baritone to command the stage. Armando Noguera as Guillaume Tell is a revelation; he embodies the power, charisma and magnanimity to play the hero of this tale, and does so with enormous spirit. His voice is superb, and he is fortunate to be joined by the mesmerising Colombian tenor, Carlos E. Bárcenas, who plays Arnold, the son of the late elder Melcthal (Teddy Tahu Rhodes), is torn between the duty to his people and to his love for the Austrian princess Mathilde (Gisela Stille).

Bárcenas also had the mountainous task of the vocal range required of his role, and he managed the most gorgeous notes with real feeling. The feeling unfortunately did not translate between his character and that of Stille’s, and it was the love between father and son that really stole the show in the performances between Noguera and the marvellous soprano Alexandra Flood (Guillaume’s son Jemmy).

Victorian Opera 2018 William Tell  © Jeff Busby (3)
Featuring Carlos E. Bárcenas and Gisela Stille. Photograph by Jeff Busby.

The tale follows the usual preparations for battle, and the tense encounters with darker forces; most notably, the infamous arrow to the apple scene, which left the audience wondering how Victorian Opera planned to stage such a complex magic trick. Unfortunately, the arrow did not pierce the apple, and it’s a surprise that Guillaume’s son was spared from the comically maniacal clutches of Austrian villain Gesler (Paolo Pecchioli). No doubt this will be rectified for future performances, and it will be a treat once achieved.

In terms of Rossini’s music, I would not say the production will be memorable for the sheer beauty of its pieces, despite an excellent orchestra conducted by the talented Mills. What will remain with me, however, is the large ensemble and its wonderful cohesion and power conveyed which was at times breathtaking. It is certainly an achievement by Director Rodula Gaitanou to maintain dramatic impact with such a vast cast. Having witnessed previous works of Victorian Opera, I would say this is a landmark for the company and showcases their capacity and ability to harness such a wealth of talented creatives from around the world.

Given the scarcity of performances in over one hundred years, I would recommend you take yourselves to catch the spectacle. William Tell will continue to run until 19 July at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling Ticketmaster on 1300 723 038.

Victorian Opera Presents CUNNING LITTLE VIXEN

Wonderfully weird and charming

By Caitlin McGrane

Victorian Opera’s production of Leoš Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen is a deeply moving portrayal of youth, the passage of time, and the pain of loss. Janáček’s immense skill is clearly evident in the juxtaposition of the soaring score and the conversational libretto. It struck me as a kind of fever dream combination of Animal Farm and the 1996 live-action film of Wind in the Willows featuring most of the Monty Python cast – a wicked combination of socialism, humour and fuzzy critters keeping the sting in the tail of the Vixen.

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I adored the score, and conductor Jack Symonds and his orchestra masterfully kept the production moving even during some slow moments. In fact, as much as I enjoyed the libretto, the opera could have been performed entirely without words and I admit I would have enjoyed it just as much. Despite the serious subject matter, the production is playful and light; director Stuart Maunder has clearly had a great deal of fun during the creative process, and it shows most clearly during the moments when the animals and insects are on stage.

The opera opens with a whole forest of animals and bugs anthropomorphised by the Adult and Children’s Choruses beautifully setting the stage for the feverish weirdness that is coming. The animal costumes (Roger Kirk), particularly the frog (Lisha Ooi), are magnificent, and are honestly one of the highlights of the show. The eponymous young Vixen (Ruby Ditton) plays with her mother (Celeste Lazarenko), and is captured by the Forester (Barry Ryan) as a pet for his children. She grows up, and the adult Vixen (Lazarenko) transforms into a Marxist feminist – taunting the other animals for their backwards views and yearning for her freedom. After a wildly funny hen massacre (RIP the marvellous Cockerel) she flees, meets a charming Fox (Antoinette Halloran) and falls madly in love.

Meanwhile, the Forester basically falls into melancholy drinking with his friends the Schoolmaster (Brenton Spiteri) and the Parson (Jeremy Kleeman), ruminating on the missing Vixen and mercilessly taunting the Schoolmaster for loving a local gypsy woman Tyrenka (Danielle Calder). Frankly, I could have done without the weird human subplots: the Vixen’s story was far more interesting than all the male human characters combined, and I really didn’t need the inclusion of Tyrenka’s wedding to the unfortunately sappy Harašta (valiantly portrayed by Samuel Dundas).

The whole ensemble performed wonderfully and with a sense of mischievous playful fun, particularly Lazarenko and Halloran (who I was secretly hoping would be an anthropomorphised lesbian fox duo). Despite such misgivings, there’s so much to be charmed by in this opera: the choruses perform their animal alter-egos with inventive physicality, and the singing from every cast member is an absolute delight.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the weirdness of Cunning Little Vixen, and it seemed the opera’s playfulness transferred to the audience, as they suppressed giggles both times the cast sang ‘Looks like she has a new muff’. I’d recommend this show for anyone who enjoys inventive costumes and/or subtle proto-feminism: it was a beautifully crafted ride.

Cunning Little Vixen is now playing at the Arts Centre. For tickets or more information visit: http://www.victorianopera.com.au/season-2017/cunning-little-vixen/

Victorian Opera Presents THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA

Clever, charming and tons of fun

By Leeor Adar

Squeals and giggles erupted from the audience of Victorian Opera’s The Princess and the Pea on Saturday afternoon. The audience is very young – the youngest I’ve seen for the Victorian Opera, and it fills me with gladness. The lingering question for opera remains as to how to attract future generations, and the Fables for Season 2017 is an operatic call to arms for Victoria’s smallest residents.

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Hans Christian Andersen’s tale is reimagined under the clever guardianship of Victorian Opera’s developing artists Candice MacAllister (Design) and Alastair Clark (Direction). This colourful and vibrant production is short and sweet at only 40 minutes, and enough to ensure the little attendees don’t go stir crazy. Composed by the late Weimar Germany’s Austrian-born Ernst Toch, the singers clearly take pleasure in performing to their craft to such a young audience.

This production was a clever way to present the tale and the marvels of the opera to its young audience. Set as a show on television station, ‘Mythical Mysteries!’ the story is presented with the humour of forgotten lines, dropped scripts and the hustle and bustle of a television set. It’s slapstick and generally silly, but the appealing performances of the cast ensured that despite the German accents, the audience understood the action. MacAllister’s set and costume design was bright and artful, which consisted of a giant television frame that lifted the veil to behind the scenes.

The story follows as expected, with a desperately in love Prince (James Egglestone), a humbly dressed Princess (Olivia Cranwell), and a Queen (Kathryn Radcliffe) who has high hopes for her princely boy. Looks are deceiving, as the moral of the story drums into the chirpy youngsters, and a plan concocted by the crafty and energetic TV Host (Dimity Shepherd) to plant a pea in the Princess’ mattress reveals the lost girl’s true identity… and they all lived happily after.

You can check out the Victorian Opera’s Fables 2017 season here: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/discover/seasons/victorian-opera-2017 which will showcase work that will entertain audiences of varying age groups.

Image by Charlie Kinross